Israel bombarded the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip with nearly 200 airstrikes early today widening a blistering assault on Gaza rocket operations to include the prime minister’s headquarters, a police compound and a vast network of smuggling tunnels.
The new attacks followed an unprecedented rocket strike aimed at the contested holy city of Jerusalem that raised the stakes in Israel’s violent confrontation with Palestinian militants and extended the battlefield.
Israeli aircraft also kept pounding their original targets, the militants’ weapons storage facilities and underground rocket launching sites. They also went after rocket squads more aggressively. The military has called up thousands of reservists and massed troops, tanks and other armoured vehicles along the border with Gaza, signalling a ground invasion could be imminent.
Militants, undaunted by the heavy damage the Israeli attacks have inflicted, have unleashed some 500 rockets against the Jewish state, including new, longer-range weapons turned for the first time this week against Jerusalem and the Tel Aviv heartland. Following those attacks, the military deployed an Iron Dome rocket defence battery in central Israel today. The system, devised precisely to deflect the Gaza rocket threat, was deployed two months earlier than planned, the Defence Ministry said.
Ten people, including eight militants, were killed and dozens were wounded in the various attacks today, Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra said. In all, 40 Palestinians including 13 civilians and three Israeli civilians have been killed since the Israeli operation began.
The violence has widened the instability gripping the Mideast. At the same time, revolts against entrenched regional regimes have opened up new possibilities for Hamas. Islamists across the Mideast have been strengthened, bringing new-found recognition to Hamas, shunned by the international community because of its refusal to recognise Israel and renounce violence.
A high-level Tunisian delegation, led by Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem, drove that point home with a visit to Gaza today. The foreign minister’s first stop was the still-smouldering ruins of the three-storey office building of Gaza’s prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas.
“Israel has to understand that there is an international law and it has to respect the international law to stop the aggression against the Palestinian people,” Abdessalem said during a tour of Gaza’s main hospital, Shifa.
He said his country was doing whatever it can to promote a ceasefire, but did not elaborate.
Egypt’s prime minister visited the area yesterday and a Moroccan delegation is due tomorrow.
Israel had been incrementally expanding its operation beyond military targets but before dawn today it ramped that up dramatically, hitting Hamas symbols of power. Israeli defence officials said military chief Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz personally ordered the scope of the airstrikes to be increased.
Haniyeh’s three-story office building was flattened by an airstrike that blew out windows in neighbouring homes. He was not inside the building at the time.
Another airstrike brought down the three-storey home of a Hamas commander in the Jebaliya refugee camp near Gaza City, critically wounding him and injuring other residents of the building, medics said.
Missiles smashed into two small security facilities and the massive Hamas police headquarters in Gaza City, setting off a huge blaze that engulfed nearby houses and civilian cars parked outside, the Interior Ministry reported. No one was inside the buildings.
The Interior Ministry said a government compound was also hit while devout Muslims streamed to the area for early morning prayers, although it did not report any casualties from that attack.
Air attacks knocked out five electricity transformers, cutting off power to more than 400,000 people in southern Gaza, according to the Gaza electricity distribution company. People switched on backup generators for limited electrical supplies.
In southern Gaza, aircraft went after underground tunnels militants use to smuggle in weapons and other contraband from Egypt, residents reported.
The Israeli military said more than 800 targets have been struck since the operation began.
Israeli leaders have threatened to widen the operation even further if the rocket fire doesn’t halt. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said options included the possible assassination of Haniyeh, the prime minister.